Imperial Differences

 - on a video installation by Swedish artist Anna Viola Hallberg.

The center of a home has historically been portrayed as the kitchen. Being a place with a hearth this is where food is prepared and where you can get warm. Hopefully, it is also a comforting place where you meet with family, with friends, and where you prepare for welcoming visitors (being strangers or not). To invite somebody into your home is a gesture of hospitality and trust. It is also intimate in nature. “My home is my castle”: this is me, I let you in here.

In this installation work Anna Viola Hallberg lets us listen to different voices, all belonging to people having immigrated to the US from the former Soviet Union and todays Russia. They reflect upon their past and present. This is done in their own kitchens, in Cleveland, Ohio, in the fall of 2015. The stories they tell are interleaved with snapshots of Cleveland bridges, bridges familiar to anyone who has visited the city. The bridges not only connects the kitchen talks, they also separate them from each other. They help us distinguish between the individual stories, each with their respective history to tell, their individual reflections to make.

Not until recently I became aware of the existence of the Kitchen Debate, the discussions between USSR Prime Minister Nikita Khrushchev and US vice president Richard Nixon. The debates were held in a model American suburban kitchen shown at the American National Exhibition 1959 in Moscow. The Bay of Pigs invasion, the cold war, the assassination of John F. Kennedy and later, in the early 1990s, the decline of the Soviet Union have overshadowed this occasion, at least in my memory. Why? Probably because of my own ignorance of cold-war history and the impact of North-European media representations.

The Kitchen Debate was important during the late 1950s. Prior to the exhibition in Moscow, a Soviet exhibition was shown in New York City. As in Moscow, The Soviet National Exhibition was presented and debated and did of course receive a lot of attention. The considerably more documented US-exhibition in Moscow was one of two concrete meetings in order to enhance communication and in the long run avoid further escalation of the cold war.

Looking at the debate from a historical point of view, as well as to its background and what was to come, what strikes me today as a historian is the imperial aspect of it. Two proud, not very old but extremely powerful nations acting as empires, discuss their political and economic models: capitalism versus communism. At the time, they were superpowers threatening each other and the rest of the world with extinction. The imperial aspect of the debate is often not commented upon. These two superpowers in fact both were (and still are) main producers of cultural values affecting large parts of the global world. The imperial Soviet is Russia, the geopolitical territory of the tsar and Russian Orthodoxy. The US one is “America”, the US lifestyle and its cultural values which are so influential in many parts of the world, in Scandinavia and Sweden not the least.

Anna Viola Hallberg’s work takes its point of departure in the Kitchen Debate and the imperial showdown between the United States of America and the Soviet Union, that is the superpowers within “the first world” and “the second world”. In the two-channel video installation shown at SPACES different cohorts of Russian and former Soviet immigrants invite us into their own kitchens. In front of the camera they ponder upon their respective places and locations, in the present in Cleveland as well as in the past. Questions concerning everyday life here and there, now and before, experiences of exile, ideas about home and belonging, and about Russia today are commented upon from individual perspectives. There are no consensus among the participants about these matters, and there is no reason to expect so. Individual experiences and backgrounds, reasons for migration, and ways of living a life in the US differ. What is common though is the location today: Cleveland, Ohio.

The stories and reflections we are invited to take part of offers several trajectories to follow in the mind and imagination of the spectator. US still as the melting-pot and the promised land for anyone who is prepared to work hard and take responsibility of one-self, worries about the geopolitical state of the world in general and of Russia and the US in particular, Cleveland as a special place for Russian communities, cosmopolitanism, exile, assimilation, multi-culturalism, to mention but a few.

Ulla Manns

Professor in Gender Studies, Södertörn University, Sweden

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